Tales of the Phoenix City – Chapter 2

This was turning to be a most unpleasant day.

First the order of lace she had placed did not come through, then that God awful bride who called in at least four times this morning to ask if her veil would be ready for her to try on by tomorrrow. Nina could almost hear her shrill voice piercing through the telephone: And remember who my father is! If the veil and dress I have ordered are not ready on time, your career in Beirut, no wait, your career in the WORLD will be over, finished, TERMINEE even before it started! Do you hear me??!!!!! Do you understand?

What Nina understood most was that she was dealing with the particularly unpleasant breed of Beiruti Princesses (BP) who drove their Hummers as if they owned the streets and could really destroy anyone’s reputation with a raise of their perfectly arched and defined eyebrow. These women turned the art of contempt into perfection, disdainfully discarding with a flick of their sleek hair anyone and anything that was not lucky enough to have bestowed upon them their grace and approval. Nina also knew that the bride to be, Yasmine, would not and could not withdraw her order now. Nina was the new up and coming designer: her work had already been featured and many magazines (these girls’ Bible) and newspapers, and praised by many Fashion editors whom the BP followed as the herd they were. Yasmine, she sensed, cared more about making her friends turn green with envy with her original dress and attire than about the groom himself, hence the extreme pressure she was currently putting on her. The dress needed to be perfect, the veil, breathtaking: the bride needed to turn heads, if not for the qualities she did not possess, at least for the magical effect of the lace and tulle intertwined with mother of pearl drops dress she was wearing.  

But Nina took her own sweet time with her. Oh the dress would be ready all right, as a matter of fact it already was, waiting in the studio on the wooden mannequin, softly sparkling, carefully shielded from the sun to keep its pearly white colour, but she figured it would do Yasmine the world of good to, once in her life, wait. No matter who she was. Especially to teach her she was no better than anyone because her father compromised himself to reach the heights of political life or stole from the people to pamper in excess his little girl, who, let’s face it, was twenty six and was pampered enough for life. 

Nina’s dresses were expensive, they had to be: she paid well her petites mains, the women whom she taught and who taught her and worked with, and made her dresses from the best material and fabric she could find. Twice a month, she would go and travel all over the region to get inspired and learn a new way of weaving, sewing, or adorning garments that she did not know about. Sometimes, she would come back to Beirut with her teachers, women she got to know over time and and have them work on her pieces. She insisted they sign their creation with their names and reap the profits of the sale. At first, people were surprised by seeing dresses from Um Fadeela for Nina Haddad in the pages of their glossy magazines, but the quality and uniqueness of the products soon made them forget about the name of the designer, and Nina and her bees soon enough earned quite the reputation in the city. Nina loved it all, she loved the looks of pride she saw in herself and in her team when a dress was achieved, she loved the late nights spent sewing and talking, she loved the camaraderie and strong ties that united her with the women who worked with her: she loved it all, and felt incredibly lucky and grateful to be able to love her job. Most of all, Nina loved being economically independent, she loved the fact that she was doing something by herself for herself: this is what chunks of freedom feel like, she thought.

Nina worked hard, in her mind when she was not in her studio, always imagining new shapes and colours and styles, writing the things that got her thinking or inspired in a pink Moleskine notebook, one of the many notebooks she carried around in her enormous handbag, almost always overflowing with papers and pieces of fabric. She needed the Beiruti Princesses to be able to live off her art, to be able to pay well her staff, to be able to keep on creating, but her ultimate dream was to be able to create dresses for all women, not just the ones who could afford them. She already made dresses for her staff and their daughters, refusing to get paid, but that was not enough. Sitting on the high chair facing the floor to ceiling window, she was thinking of ways to make her productions more affordable while maintaining the same quality, while her Turkish coffee was getting slowly colder and colder in the tiny little cup that had belonged to her grandfather. 

Business plans were not her forte, and she plainly refused to be bought by one of these saber-toothed sharks that had already started lurking around her after the couple of whopping reviews she got. No, there had to be another way, and she would find it! 

A gentle tapping on the door awoke her from her daydreaming. She got up to open the creaking wooden door, and there appeared Hamid, the delivery boy who spent his days zigzagging through the web of Beiruti traffic to deliver his parcels. Watching his sweaty face while he handed her the delivery of lace, Nina wondered what it must feel like to live in a country where a proper post office service actually worked and where parcel were delivered by workers who got benefits and salaries and days off. Unlike Hamid. 

– Here Hamid, come in, have a Pepsi or something you’re gonna die from dehydration at the threshold of my studio and habibi this isn’t a good look for me

Hamid smiled, and answered in his usual cheeky fashion:

– Come on Nina, you know full well that a simple smile from you and I should be arise from the dead! I can’t stay for a Pepsi, I’m late enough as it is, but thanks anyway! 

– Allah Ma3ak, you weird new version of Jesus! Arise from the dead indeed! 

Still smiling, she looked at him zap the distance on his bike, then opened her parcel, freeing the lace. 

– Now let’s see what we’re going to do with you! 

– 

Portrait: Abou Georges

Abou Georges is a “Chauffeur Taxi”, and by this, please understand “Client’s Worst Nightmare Extraordinaire”. 

You see, people need him and his brotherhood of drivers linked by their ever powerful radio, so they have to put up with whatever he decides. 

And if that means making his (rusty old ‘72 Merc) engine roar at 120km/h on the Ashrafieh/Hazmieh autostrade while srcibbling down the phone number of his next patron and zigzaging in between cars, then so be it. And woe betides the fool who would timidly ask him to slow down a little! Ba3d na2ess heyde to come and teach him how to drive in this country! Leyke 3ayne, I’ve been driving for 40 years in this country, if you’re not happy, take the bus! Cue chuckles and mumbles under his chin. 

You see, Abou Georges knows full well there are no buses to speak of in Beirut, no one really knows where they go, or how to take them, and the bus stops seem so elusive looking for them is like looking for a warlord money: invisible until it pops up in front of you, as if by magic. Not to mention the fact that very few women risk themselves on the buses, for fear of having their boob or butt felt up. Abou Georges tried once, and still remembers the allmighty slap in the face he got, assorted with copious insults and threats. Not worth it, wou ba3den he felt bad, I mean he does have the whole collection of saints of Lebanon (Mar Charbel. 2dissetna Rafqa. Mar Hardini. Our Lady of Lebanon. Jesus Christ King of Kings) stuck in front of him, as well as the Holy Cross wrapped around his rear-view mirror. I mean, they can’t have them be the witnesses of his weaknesses.

No, no he is safe in the haven of his Markazieh, the taxi central, and please do not mistake him for a vulgar service that roam the streets of Beirut, looking for clients as if they were beggars: he is a proud member of the  Alonso Taxi fleet. Service! Pah! Can these people yell Markazieh, Markazieh! Tess3ira! Yalla Chabeb! Who can go from Verdun to Ashrafieh in under 2 mins? Yalla! Tayb Khod el tari2 3aks el serr Kheyye! Well can they? See, didn’t think so. The Markazieh makes all the difference. 

Abou Georges likes having clients around, so he can share bits of his life with them, and occasionnally start the odd mashkal. I mean, one does get a tad bored driving up and down Beirut like that. This is why Abou Georges usually plays pro-Lebanese Forces radio shows very loudly in his car, in the hope that a Tayyar-supporting client will jump in, listen to an apology of Hakim Samir Geagea and start a heated conversation with him (also known as fight) until he drops the little traitor in Da7ieh where he belongs now. Sadly, this only rarely happens. So sometimes Abou Georges calls his brother in law to discuss the plans of their joint business together, where it’s question of obscure investments that will leave the client wondering if Abou Georges is not, in fact, some kind of pimp. “There is a lot of money to be made in that business, kheyye”, certainly does nothing to reassure the poor, already horrified, client. 

No, Abou Georges definitely loves being a chauffeur taxi in Lebanon: the comradeship with his fellow taxi drivers remind him of the togetherness he felt with his fellow militia men during the war, even though those truly were the Halcyon Days of never being bored. Ah well, one does get old, and if he ever needs the adrenaline rush, he can always play with his life (and with whomever had the bad luck to be with him that day) on the Sanayeh roundabout.